Sea Change of Japan?

On Sunday, Japanese citizens went to the polls and did something that would be banal in any other long-running democracy. Weary of recession, they voted in droves against the party in power and delivered a massive victory to the opposition. This happens all the time. Except, that is, in Japan where it's never really happened. For over 50 years, the Liberal Democratic Party has enjoyed a political monopoly, excepting a brief run in 1993-1994 when an unstable opposition coalition held power for about a year before the LDP cracked its ranks. This time, it's different. The opposition Democratic Party has a huge post-election majority in the lower house of the Diet and already enjoyed control of the less-powerful upper house. Now, they look set to have a real chance at shaking things up in Japan. In turn, America's Asia-watchers are left wondering whether the election results will shake things up in the U.S.-Japanese relationship, too.

The alliance between the United States and Japan rarely occupies Americans' minds. That, however, says less about the relationship's importance than its placidity. Since World War II, Japanese foreign policy has been guided by a blend of pacifistic impulses and subservience to U.S. policy-making. Consequently, Japan is in some ways our most important ally. It's the second-largest economy in the world (though set to slip behind China soon). It tends to foot a very large proportion of the bill for multilateral endeavors, like United Nations peacekeeping and the first Gulf War, without asking for much control in exchange. And not only does it play host to American military bases, it pays us for the privilege.

The situation doesn't seem tenable over the long run: World War II ended long ago, and the Asian security landscape is bound to change with China rapidly industrializing.

Earlier this decade, Japanese security policy did edge in a somewhat more assertive direction. In particular, then-Prime Minister Junchiro Koizumi approved the first deployment of Japan's so-called Self-Defense Forces outside of Japanese soil during the United States' war with Iraq. Sending a token force to Samawa was, however, largely of a piece with Japan's tradition of acting as an adjunct to American power -- a break from precedent that only served to underscore the larger one.

In opposition, the Democrats indicated that they wanted bigger change. On the campaign trail, party leader Yukio Hatoyama criticized the LDP for slavishly following the American lead, spoke of reducing the number of U.S. troops on Japanese soil, and suggested that Japan might decline to refuel U.S. ships in the Indian Ocean. The use of such promises as a campaign tactic suggested an overall desire to chart a more independent course for Japan. The trouble is that in a country where the opposition has never won, nobody really understands how to tell the difference between serious policy proposals and campaign-season pandering. The American bases in Japan tend to be unpopular with the people who live near them, but the basing arrangements are part of a larger strategic relationship that is popular. Knocking the bases without knocking the alliance overall has an air of cheap talk about it.

That said, Hatoyama did publish a serious-seeming pre-election op-ed that opened with a complaint that "Japan has been continually buffeted by the winds of market fundamentalism in the U.S.-led movement that is more usually called globalization." The article said that "of course, the Japan-U.S. security pact will continue to be the cornerstone of Japanese diplomatic policy," but that caveat came surrounded by statements about "the creation of an East Asian community," suggestions that "the era of U.S. unilateralism must come to an end," and calls for Japan to "maintain its political and economic independence and protect its national interest when caught between the United States, which is fighting to retain its position as the world's dominant power, and China."

All this suggests that the new regime really may try to chart a much more independent course.

Doing so would be risky but potentially quite valuable. Japan and its environs are one of the high points of America's drive for global military supremacy. Even those of us inclined to be skeptical have to be impressed by the way the U.S.-Japanese alliance has helped prevent the emergence of a potentially destructive arms race between Japan, China, and South Korea.

Much as nobody is quite sure of what to make of Hatoyama's campaign rhetoric, an untested new Japanese leadership throwing off the American yoke would likely make other Asian leaders nervous. The worry would be that a Japan without firm ties to the United States would need to increase its own defense capabilities considerably. That, in turn, could spur China to further intensify its own defense buildup. And in principle, it could open up a whole new front for nuclear proliferation. Bigger Chinese defense expenditures would also have negative consequences for India and Pakistan and make existing proliferation problems worse.

What Hatoyama actually called for, however, was rather different. Instead of a re-armed Japan, he wrote of "regional integration and collective security" along the lines of the European Union as the best ways to achieve "the principles of pacifism and multilateral cooperation advocated by the Japanese Constitution."

This would be a difficult trick to pull off, but the outcome would be excellent. American worries about what the East Asian security environment would look like absent a hegemonic U.S. position are not unfounded. At the same time, the status quo simply isn't viable over the long run. China is growing rapidly; Japan is a major country; smaller players like Korea and Taiwan have developed; and the region is simply too far away for it to make sense for us to be the main military player forever. Eventually, the region will have to go down either the path of security integration or competition. Traditionally, the United States has opposed any alteration of the status quo in the region fearing that change will end up in the latter arms-race scenario. Back in June, for example, Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia Kurt Campbell slapped down Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd's regional integration ideas. But with a new Japanese prime minister seemingly singing from the Rudd book, it may be time for us to abandon this point of view. Japan and Australia are, after all, our best friends in the region, and we ought to encourage them if they're both prepared to take the leap to build the better security architecture of tomorrow. If we don't, the risk is that the status quo will simply unravel in some less palatable way a few years down the road.

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